Guest Column: IT Strategy Best Practices
IT Strategy Best Practices
by Praveen Puri
Today, having a successful IT strategy is important for ALL companies, not just those companies involved in directly selling software or computer systems. Mobile apps, cloud-based software services, artificial intelligence (AI), and cheap sensors (IoT, “Internet of Things”) are disrupting all industries. Yet, according to CIO magazine, “…research firm IDC, estimates that 30 percent to 35 percent of IT projects could be counted as failures.”
As trusted advisors, we can help our clients succeed with their IT strategy (and avoid this statistic), even if our backgrounds are not in technology. At the highest level, Alan Weiss’s three principles still apply:
- Our clients have the content expertise, but they need our processes.
- They know what they want, but not necessarily what they need. This gulf is what Alan calls “the value distance.”
- They need to nail down the “why” and “what” (strategy) before dealing with the “how” (tactics).
I divide IT strategy into the following three phases:
This is the most important phase, because it ultimately determines the success of the other phases. This is where our client decides what needs to be done. This could be resolving a problem (returning to a previous level) or innovation (moving to a higher level).
In this phase, we can give tremendous value to our clients by making sure that they focus on:
- The “Why?” not just the “What.” Really understanding why a certain initiative should be pursued will help guide the other phases, align all parties towards the desired outcome, and reduce the chance for failure and disappointment.
- Alignment between the business and technology. This is one of the major reasons for IT initiative failure. Typically, companies think the business analysts handle this in the design phase, but alignment needs to start at the strategic level, and continue to be pursued during the whole implementation. It is important to note that alignment problems can occur whether or not the technologists are internal to the client, or an outsourced third party.
An example of the importance of these two issues occurred when I was a product manager for a CAD/CAM software manufacturer. Our client designed and manufactured packaging for companies such as the toy company Mattel. They uncovered “the opportunity” for an interface between our CAD system and a graphics system, which could tremendously streamline their operations.
Unfortunately, the creators of the initial high-level design didn’t understand “Why” the interface would help them. Also, there wasn’t enough communication between the people who would use the interface (the Business) and our engineers who would develop it.
Luckily for our client, I caught this before development started. Even though revising the high level design resulted in some loss of time, the client would have lost $2 million if the original plan had been pursued.
In this phase, business analysts gather requirements to translate the business details of the opportunity into tasks to be implemented, while architects create the high-level technical designs. As strategists, our value in this phase is to advise our clients on:
- Correctness and unambiguity with respect to business alignment. We need to advise our clients that, as part of the business analysis process, comprehensive test cases covering all functionality must be developed. That way, developers and testers have an objective way of knowing whether they are meeting the needs of the business.
- Stressing the need for user simplicity and user design. Along with business alignment and correctness, user simplicity must be a high level strategic imperative.
As an example of its critical importance, I was once involved in the merger of two banks. The larger, acquiring bank planned to shut down the acquired bank’s applications, transfer all customers to their systems, and lay off the IT staff at the smaller bank. However, at the last minute, it was learned that the smaller bank’s applications were ranked in the top 10 for usability by a user poll conducted by a major banking magazine. Because of this user simplicity, the fate of the two banks’ software, and 100s of IT jobs, were changed overnight. The smaller bank’s software was adopted by the merged bank, their IT staff kept their jobs, and IT executives at the larger bank were replaced by executives from the acquired bank.
- We need to advise our clients that, starting at this high-level design phase, the needs of the initiative AFTER implementation must be addressed. Too often, designers focus on plans to simply deliver the project, after which they move on to other projects. But, an effective IT strategy must account for the operation, growth, scaling, support, security, and risk management of all completed initiatives placed into production. I refer to this as “operational simplicity.”
This is of tremendous strategic value because, without this, CIOs and their teams end up spending their time managing the technology environment, with less resources to devote to future initiatives and innovation.
This is where the “how,” or actual development process, takes place. A project manager guides the implementation, and it has several facets: low level design, development, testing, and releasing. A lot of this phase consists of content knowledge, and this is the place for choice of programming language, and the latest IT techniques like “agile” and “Dev Ops”.”
As strategy consultants, we don’t have to focus on these concepts, but we still have high-level value that we can contribute at this stage (in an advisory and facilitative capacity):
- As the implementation progresses, there needs to be continuing, iterative communication / feedback / pushback between Business and Technology because, as the initiative gets implemented, developers may not understand exactly what the Business intends, and technical challenges may result in the need to modify the original outcomes.
Too often, however, there is a break in communication during this phase. Then, when the project is completed, all parties end up unpleasantly surprised to learn that the initiative has deviated from the desired outcomes. As part of IT strategy, we need to insure that there are processes in place to ensure continued alignment.
- We must advise our client to make sure processes are in place to promote “user simplicity” with respect to personnel. Too often, I have been involved in implementations that were delayed because employees and contractors had trouble getting access to servers, data, etc.
As an example, I was involved in a project at a large bank where, every time they added a new resource, there was a two-day delay before he/she could be productive. To get access to the necessary systems, several different forms needed to be filled out, approved by various managers, and sent to different work groups. An appropriate high-level process would have ensured that one request would cover ALL access.
The ability to manage IT, and harness it to add value to the business, is critical for all companies in today’s age of disruption. Too often, there is a communication gap between what the Business wants, and what the technologists create.
While there is plenty of technical talent available to companies, there is a tremendous need for strategically oriented consultants who can operate at the big-picture level, and guide clients to create high-level processes that result in IT success.
© Praveen Puri 2019
Praveen Puri is the IT strategy expert who has delivered over $400 million in value to clients, in the form of increased valuations, reduced costs, productivity gains, and new revenue.
He advises on digital transformation, business alignment, faster development, streamlining operations, and risk management.